The Watermark

“Give it to me!”

“No!”

The noise rose to a cacophony that caused the adults in the room to cover their ears with their hands. The shrieks faded as the children ran down the hall and out the sliding door into the backyard, where their noise was absorbed by the air around them.

“What is up with those children?” Sonja stood up and looked out the window where she could see the children running around in circles in the large yard. The noonday sun warmed the air and seemed to give the children even more energy.

“They are just enjoying life.” Olive pushed the rocker with her feet and lowered her gnarled hands and chuckled. “Wish I could join them.” The clock on the mantle struck the hour.

Sonja turned around and frowned. “If we had yelled that like, you would have spanked us and sent us to bed without supper.” She pursed her lips and picked up an empty glass of iced tea. On the way into the kitchen, she tossed over her shoulder, “Why do grandparents treat their grandchildren and children so differently?”

Olive shook her head as a small smile played along her lips. Keeping her eyes on the window where the children were playing, Olive absently ran her fingers in a circle on the table next to her.

“Mother, where did you move the dish soap?” The sound of cabinet doors opening and closing could be heard from the living room. “Ah, never mind. I found it. Why aren’t you keeping it under the sink anymore?”

With a sigh, Olive stood up. “Because I didn’t unload the last bunch of groceries.” She shuffled into the kitchen. Her feet were hurting, telling her that a storm was coming. She made a mental note to close all the windows before going to bed that night.

“Who did?” Sonja’s voice was muffled as she looked through the cabinets.

“Oh, Cody Chapman volunteered to pick up my groceries this week.” Olive moved over to the kitchen table near the window and settled down. She could see the kids much better from there.

Sonja grunted as she squeezed the soap into the dishwasher and started it. “I still don’t know why you have others get your groceries for you. We can easily do it.”

Olive kept her eyes glued to the window, not wanting to look at her daughter. “You never have time.”

“Alright, Mom. Stop that. You just ask when we are too busy to do it.”

“How do I know when you aren’t too busy?”

A spoon was slammed into a drawer. “Mom, we’ve gone over this. You have to tell me before the week starts.”

Olive kept her voice even and her eyes trained on her grandchildren. “I don’t know I need milk until I need it.”

Sonja ran her hand over her eyes and sighed. “Why do you have to start this? You always have to make us feel guilty.”

“Guilty about what?” Olive kept her voice innocent with a smile as little Maryann managed to keep the ribbon she was pulling through the air away from her brother’s hands.

“Mom!” Sonja crossed her arms across her chest. “Stop it! We can’t just drop everything when you need us. We have lives, and you have to understand that. Just give us a heads up and we can do whatever you need.”

Olive kept quiet. It was an old argument relived every visit.

“I need to go to the eye doctor on Tuesday.” Her voice was low.

“Now you tell me? I can’t get off work that soon.”

“I told you last week when I made it.”

“When you told me a million other things? Mom, write it down. I’ll read it when I come over.” The irritation in Sonja’s voice caused her to squeak as she spoke.

“It might be too late then,” Olive replied as Sonja walked outside where her husband was talking with a neighbor. Olive could hear Sonja complaining about her mother’s selfish acts and how Olive didn’t care about their lives. It was what Olive heard every visit.

Her face remained stoic as she watched the active scene outside. The quiet of the house deafened her. She welcomed it for now. It was horrible when she was alone. The visits from her only daughter and her children were joyous moments until Sonja opened her mouth. From there, the silence became a welcomed friend.

The silence didn’t use to be a common occurrence. There was a day when her own daughter was the one running through the house with her friends. The door was always opening and closing, bringing in more noise. She wasn’t foolish enough to think she loved it back then. She hated it. The noise was too much most of the time.

After working all day at the factory, she longed to come home to a bit of quiet. That wasn’t possible with a child and all her friends coming over. Olive didn’t have the heart to deny Sonja her friends. Her twin sister had died when they were six years old. It had devastated them all when Maryann drowned, but Sonja took it the hardest.

She lost herself in new friends and constant activity. Olive was glad to see that, but it got to the point where Sonja expected to always be going out and rarely stayed home. Maybe that was the reason they couldn’t connect.

Olive’s memories were of sunshine and roses when it came to Sonja and Maryann together. She knew it wasn’t completely accurate, as there were the temper tantrums and late nights taking care of sick children, but they enjoyed each other. The children loved to spend time with her, and she enjoyed being with them. They made mud pies together. They cooked dinner together. They did everything together and loved it. Then Maryann had her accident.

Sonja pulled away from them all. On the surface, she appeared a normal child, but she didn’t have the same heart she had before. Olive tried to let her be and heal, but she only grew more distant. In her teenage years, she became bitter and condescending toward Olive.

Olive always wondered if Sonja blamed her for Maryann’s death. It was Olive after all who said they could play in the water at the lake. It was Olive who was getting lunch together for them. It was Olive who didn’t run fast enough when she heard Sonja’s screams for help. Sonja never said it, but Olive always felt that there was resentment there.

After Sonja left home for college and then  marriage, it was just Olive and Willie. She enjoyed those years. There was a quiet that settled down with them that felt solid and secure. She really did cherish those days with Willie, even though he still worked. Once Sonja left home, they really didn’t need the money from Olive’s work. She was finally able to stay home like she always wanted, although there were no children to be home with.

Each week Sonja faithfully came by to visit her parents. As children were added to the family one by one until there were five, the visits became louder and longer. Olive really didn’t mind. She enjoyed having the family around, although she felt that she was always running around cleaning up after everyone. All her friends told her she should sit back and enjoy the grandkids, but all she could see was the mess they were creating.

Her thoughts were interrupted when the sound of the patio door opening reached her ears. She sighed and stood up. Her rocker was calling her. She always felt better sitting in her rocker.

“The food is about ready. Henry said to get the drinks together.” Sonja moved about the kitchen, gathering paper plates to take outside. “I think we should eat on the patio so we don’t mess up your kitchen.”

“I don’t mind. We can eat inside.”

Sonja stopped. “Mom, the kids would make a mess. You know you don’t like a mess in the house.” She huffed and walked outside.

“I prefer to have the love,” Olive mumbled as she followed her daughter.

The food had been cleaned up and the children were laying at all angles on the floor watching a movie. All was quiet in the house aside from the television. Sonja’s husband watched the movie with the kids while Olive and her daughter sat in the back of the room. Olive’s foot moved her rocker back and forth. Lunch was blended with dinner during the visits. It was easier on everyone for preparation and cleanup.

She remembered the times it was just her and Willie sitting in that same spot. Well, not quite the same spot. When he was there, he was sitting in his ratty old recliner where her rocker was now. The new recliner was where the rocker used to be, on the other side of the coffee table. Sonja sat in it now.

When Willie had first died, she had kept everything exactly the same, but she eventually felt foolish for doing so. Acting as though nothing had changed was denying the truth. Everything had changed. Nothing would be the same again. The sooner she accepted that the better.

So, she got rid of his recliner that probably was a health hazard and moved her rocker into its spot. Sonja was pleased as she had pushed her mom for new furniture for years.

“Why didn’t you get new tables, Mom? These are so old.”

Olive looked down to where she was absently rubbing the end table next to her. Her fingers were following an old path that gave her comfort and peace.

“I like these. Don’t need them.”

“You got a new chair.”

“A new chair was needed.”

“Mom, these tables are stained. I mean, you keep touching the water stain from Dad’s beer. You hated the fact that he never used a coaster. Get rid of it. That way you won’t have to keep fretting over the stain.”

“I’m not fretting.”

“You’re always touching it. I know how you hated any marks on the furniture. Now is the time to get it all fixed up and everything new.”

“Yes, I used to hate the marks, but now…now they are here to stay.”

“What? What is wrong with you, Mother? Have you been taking your meds? You don’t like marks on the table or messes in the house, but lately you act like you actually want them. I don’t understand.”

Olive sighed. She hated confrontation, and Sonja just seemed to always want it, especially with her. Sometimes it was better if she just gave in and got it over with.

“I enjoy having your father’s mark here. Reminds me of lessons I’ve learned.”

“Lessons? Enjoy? Mom, I do believe you need to see a doctor.”

“Sonja, there are lessons to be learned everywhere.”

“Not that again.” Sonja pushed herself up and with her glass of wine walked out onto the patio.

Olive stood up to follow. She didn’t want to disturb the children, and something inside her told her Sonja needed more than just a few words spoken to her.

She found Sonja leaning on the picnic table, staring up at the darkening sky. It was where she had always gone as a child to think or calm down. Olive’s heart hurt a little as she looked at the woman who once had been a little girl who snuggled on her lap. How she missed that girl!

“I don’t understand you, Mom,” Sonja whispered as she continued staring up. “You used to be so concerned about how the house looked and the noise levels, and now you seem almost a slob.”

Olive laughed. Slob was far from what she was. Her house was still immaculate, but she didn’t rush to get it clean when the kids were there, nor did she make the way her house looked her first priority. Sonja still didn’t get it.

“I’m not a slob, Sonja. I just don’t have to have everything perfect all the time.”

“You used to.”

“People change.”

“How? How can you change?”

Olive sat down on the chair in the corner of the patio and crossed her feet at the ankles. “Life causes us to change.”

“Mom, like the stain on the table. Why won’t you let it go? Is it because Dad made it? It’s a flaw.”

“Part of it is because of your dad.”

“And?”

“And part of it a lesson.”

“What lesson?”

“A lesson on priorities.”

Silence prompted Olive to continue.

“I spent so many years focused on keeping the house spotless and perfect. It’s what I thought I was supposed to do. Every moment I could, I was picking up and polishing. Then everyone would know what a good wife and mother I was.”

The crickets in the yard chirped as Olive paused. The sounds of the city were distant against the quiet that surrounded them.

“Then it was just me and your father. I continued doing just that.” Olive laughed. “I hounded him for leaving that old glass on the table. I knew a mark would find its way there. I should have known it wouldn’t work. I still picked up his dirty clothes from beside the hamper. Some things he could never be taught.”

Olive sighed.“Then he died. I woke up one morning to find him gone, though physically still with me. Everything changed in the blink of an eye. I had washed his clothes for forty-three years. Now I didn’t have to. I had cooked his meals every single day. Now I would cook only for myself. The things that were important before were no longer needed. Priorities changed.”

“What does that have to do with a watermark?”

“I fussed about that table and his glass being on it. I was so worried about having a mark there that I spent more time fretting over it than enjoying sitting there with him. The watermark showed up just as I had predicted, but now he’s gone. I wasted all that time worrying about something that was just going to happen anyway instead of cherishing those times with him. The day I realized that, I looked around and saw it all in a whole new light.

“Dishes didn’t have to be cleaned immediately when the kids were here. Why miss out on a chance to play cards with my grandkids for a dirty plate that will stay dirty until I get to it? It won’t move or change, but they will. They’ll be grown up while I worry about a dumb plate. I worried about a dumb watermark instead of sitting down and watching a movie with my Willie. He asked me to so many times, but I had to keep everything just perfect. And for what? To stare at a perfectly clean house with him gone?”

Silence descended between them. After several long moments, Sonja sat her glass down and lowered her body to the bench of the table.

“I don’t understand.”

“My dear, I was wrong all those years. Yes, I had a house to keep in order, but too many times I put the order ahead of the family I was given. I had a family to love and enjoy. The house could have waited. None of you could have.”

“But it was important to you.”

“Yes, it was at the time. But I was wrong. I should have loved you and let you know it instead of thinking that my house was the most important thing. I’m just sorry it took Willie leaving for it to hit me.”

Sonja sat in silence, letting the words sink in. Her mind and her heart waged against each other. Mentally, she fought against what she heard her mother saying. Things didn’t change for the better. Her mother liked a spotless house; that was more important than anything. It had to stay that way. Her mother had to always love her house in perfect condition. But her heart….her heart longed for the words to be true.

As a child, she loved spending time with her mother, but when she wanted to play or just watch a movie together, her mother was always cleaning. The dishes always had to be done right after dinner. There was no waiting despite the fact that the Wonderful World of Disney was coming on. Sonja had to watch the movie alone.

She used to have Maryann to watch television with. They did everything together. Then she was gone. Sonja turned to her mother, but there was dust on the shelves and pictures. Clothes had to be washed. She learned quickly that her pain had to be pushed aside to let more important things take over like keeping her room clean.

As she became a rebellious teenager, she turned more to socializing and expanding her group of friends. None were ever real close friends, but they were ones she could hang out with and bring home to make noise. That was how she got back at her mother: she made sure there was lots of noise and messes left behind. Yes, she might have to clean up afterwards, but she knew it was killing her mother inside that there was something dirty sitting on the counter.

Sonja thought back on the days with her father still living. Even after she had left home, her mother was always in a constant state of cleaning and fretting over what people might think of her if they dropped by. Her father was constantly hounded to pick up his clothes, hang his coat up, and use a coaster on the table. That was a constant battle between her parents. Her mother was terrified that his glass would leave a watermark on the table, which would make the living room less perfect. He was determined that it didn’t matter, as the coaster kept disappearing anyway. He was too tired after work to hunt for it. Now…her mother wanted the watermark.

A tear gathered in the corner of her eye and trickled down her cheek. Sonja blinked as the lights in the night sky blurred.

She whispered, “I always thought you loved the house more than me.”

Olive pushed herself up from the chair and pulled her only child into her embrace. “Never. I had it in my mind that if the house was perfect, then I was perfect. Everyone commented on how other people’s houses looked and judged them on those appearances. I didn’t want to be judged like that. I wanted to be admired. The problem was that I was too worried about what the wrong people thought.” She pulled back and looked into eyes that were looking at her unguarded for the first time in years. “I should have worried about what you thought and not what judgmental people thought of me. You were what was important. Your father was what was important. I know it is too late now for that, but I don’t want to make that same mistake with my grandchildren.”

“Mama…I…I love you.” Sonja held onto her mother tightly.

“I love you, sweetheart.”

Sonja laughed. “That watermark…”

“Yes. That watermark. I swear Willie left it there so it’d be there after he was gone, just to get to me. What he didn’t realize is how much I love the fact that he left it.”

“Yes, I love that watermark, too, Mom.”

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